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Gadsden County protest harks to 1960s civil rights era

QUINCY — The crowd sang We Shall Overcome, wielded protest signs and demanded justice, a civil rights era script played out in 21st century Florida.

Under the spreading limbs of oak trees on the front lawn of the Gadsden County Courthouse, about 70 African-Americans vowed to fight what they call a plot to purge county government of black supervisors.

The link between the present and a half-century-old past was not lost on the crowd.

"It's hard to explain," said Bishop Willie C. Green, a former teacher and principal born and raised in Gadsden County.

"We've made a lot of progress" over the years, he said. "I find it personally offensive to be dealt a setback like this."

In 1969, Green was one of the first black students to attend an integrated school in Gadsden County and became class president in 1972. He is now head of the Church of God and Christ in North Florida.

Green and the others who gathered at the call of the NAACP said they never expected to be part of a modern-day protest. Some recalled when they had to drink out of separate water fountains and visit local doctors through a "colored only" waiting room.

Sam Palmer, president of the Gadsden County NAACP, said county officials initially refused to grant a permit for Tuesday's rally and threatened to have all of them arrested. He said the officials backed down after Gadsden Sheriff Morris Young said he would not make arrests.

Young could not be reached for comment.

After a brief rally, the protesters jammed a commission meeting room across the street.

They stood up one by one before the five-member commission and called for the ouster of County Administrator Johnny Williams and Commissioner Doug Croley, the white men they say were the ringleaders of a racist plot.

Williams and Croley did not respond. Commissioner Brenda Holt, who is black, offered motions to suspend or immediately remove Williams from office but drew no support from the other commissioners, two of whom are also black.

"It's hard for me to believe this County Commission would allow Gadsden County to take a step backward and allow racist discrimination against employees," Green told the commission. "If the citizens of Egypt could demand a tyrant be removed from office, it is appropriate that the citizens of Gadsden County ask for the removal of this tyrant," Green added, referring to Williams.

"Why is he still here?" asked Sam Hawkins, a self-employed maintenance worker who is engaged to Holt, as he looked toward Williams.

Hawkins went on to accuse Williams, Croley and others of paying for votes in the 2008 election to help a white candidate defeat a black incumbent and gain control of the commission.

"What you have done in the last four years has been orchestrated by a few commissioners who bought votes," Hawkins continued.

Several protesters told commissioners they have talked to FBI agents investigating vote-buying allegations. An FBI spokesman refused to confirm or deny the reports.

"There is a whirlwind coming, folks," said Dale Landry, vice president of the NAACP in North Florida. "Justice is coming. There was fraud in an election, and I'm proud of the people who have come forward to testify to the FBI."

Commission Chairman Sherrie Taylor, who is black, described the evening as a "trying time" the board has to "endure" and promised the criticism "didn't fall on deaf ears."

Three lawsuits have been filed against the commission accusing Croley and Williams, who are both white, and Commissioner Eugene Lamb, who is black, of conspiring to elect a second white commissioner. The three formed a new council majority that, according to the suits, directed a purge of more than a dozen black county supervisors.

Williams has denied wrongdoing. Croley and the other commissioners have referred all comments to Tallahassee attorney Brian Duffy, who has not returned telephone messages.

The NAACP plans another rally this month, Palmer said, and is considering its own legal action.

Gadsden County protest harks to 1960s civil rights era 03/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 10:13pm]
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